In the fall of 2017, I was teaching in a crowded 6th-grade classroom in Pune, India. Each period, I would rush through a history or geography lesson, scribbling notes across a chalkboard and stumbling to review the students’ notebooks. The classes were frantic and chaotic; the students talked constantly and threw paper balls across the room. The electricity at times shut off and with it the fans and any reprieve from the heat outside. On short-staffed days, classes were merged into larger groups of 60-80 students, amplifying the noise, the heat, and the chaos. On the most difficult days, with my shaggy hair and dirty blue kurta, I wondered exactly how I ended up in such a place.
Don’t get me wrong. Whatever difficulties I faced, I was always grateful for the opportunity to work abroad. However, I was fully aware of the bizarreness of my situation. If I think only to several years ago, my shaggy hair was short, parted, and combed, my dirtied blue kurta was a tucked button-down Oxford, and the ringing Hindu temple adjacent to the school was instead a silent Catholic chapel. From 2nd-8th grade, I was a student at The Woods Academy. While my elementary and middle school may seem a stark contrast from my work overseas, the truth is, the two are more related than they seem.
Put simply, I do not think I would have traveled to India without the moral lessons of The Woods Academy. Some of these lessons were ingrained in The Woods curriculum: visiting activists, authors, and former students during Monday morning chapel, informal conversations during upper school advisory sessions, or Mr. Maloney’s prayers during religion class. Others were more sporadic: Mrs. Taverner complementing our artwork, Mr. Oosterahut driving the robotics team to a restaurant or Mr. Alisbah playing basketball with us during recess. These memories - in which The Woods Academy staff taught me the value of kindness and giving time to others - are countless. Moreover, regardless of how I look, where I am, who I’m around, they’ve stayed with me.
If anything, I have only appreciated them more over time. After The Woods, I attended a competitive high school where ethics was not formally taught. Most of the students and teachers were kind and thoughtful people, but the curriculum itself focused mainly on academics. Whatever charitable actions the school encouraged - completing service and what is called CAS hours - were little more than bureaucratic hurdles. By 12th grade, I had received a great education, but it felt detached from my own moral development. Adulthood increasingly seemed like a competition for mundane accomplishments, the best grades, the best college acceptances, the best internship opportunities. Part of my reason for working in India was to rediscover the overlap between work and moral purpose.
When teaching in India, my Woods Academy experience helped me in another way. In the students, I saw my own 6th-grade class, the same rambunctious, humorous, energetic kids that I knew only several years earlier. At times when I thought the year a failure, when the lessons were far behind schedule or the students recalcitrant, talking with each other, or refusing to listen, I sought to suppress my own frustrations and think back to what I personally valued as a student. I did not honestly remember any specific science lesson or textbook reading. What I do remember, and what I truly valued at The Woods were my relationships, with my friends, classmates, and teachers. Therefore, regardless of my lesson plans in India, I tried first to earn my students’ trust. I wanted, above all, to teach them kindness. This took time and patience. I struggled to build relationships for months. Slowly, I began to see glimpses of success that encouraged me to keep trying.
I can think of two moments in particular. The first occurred at the Community Center on a rainy afternoon. With slow classes, a power outage, and a nearby grading deadline, I was exhausted. Then, one of my students stopped me at the Center’s entrance.
“Bhaiya (brother), can I speak to you in private?”, he asked.
“Yes, of course. What’s wrong?” We moved to an adjacent room.
“Bhaiya, you know Anika?” the boy murmured, looking at his toes.
“Yes, of course,” I answered.
“She is very pretty, no?”
“Yes. She is.” I began to understand where this was going.
“I like her very much. I don’t know what to do”
His answer made me smile and we began to think. We stopped work and wrote up a plan on how he would ask out Anika. Ironically, it was at this time that I felt most of use as a teacher - not during class or tutoring - but when trusted by a vulnerable student.
The second moment was less uplifting. A close friend at the school asked me to spend an afternoon playing with one of our worst behaved kids. For the sake of his privacy, I will call him Rohan. We mostly just reviewed his work and drew pictures. After watching him, my friend told me that Rohan had been crying because his father came home the night before in an alcohol-fueled rage. After a tense argument, his father threatened to kill him. Rohan left and was afraid to return home. My friend talked with the family and the school and tried to resolve the crisis. It was in the midst of this tragedy that I realized how pointless our textbook lessons could seem. I could not blame the students for paying little attention in class. Moreover, I could not trivialize their own problems since they were only a few years younger than I was. What many of these kids needed was kindness and time. While we promoted more charitable and mental health-related activities at the after-school community center, there was always a need for more empathy.
Like most things, my experience in India did not exist in a vacuum. My time at The Woods Academy helped lead me to Pune. Teaching in Pune reminded me of The Woods Academy. In both places, I saw and tried to encourage learning, hard work, but above all kindness. When teaching, I tried to emulate my old classmates: Ned Flanagan, Ana Harmsen, or Sarah Bash; students who are all deeply moral and driven to do good. That is why I am grateful for The Woods. Not only for preparing me to do well in the world, but giving others and me the moral compass to know which way to go.